“Be the spice of life”, the saying goes, and it seems that in 2020, courtesy of the Covid-19 hard lockdown, many people tried to do just that by adding a dash of flavour to their daily routines, to combat the dreariness and fear of the dreaded virus and isolation through their palates. 

“We have witnessed a significant demand spike in most of our export markets. We’ve seen consumers wanting to fill their pantries, explore different kinds of at-home cooking and wanting to travel via their taste buds,” said Paul Jibson, chief executive of Cape Herb & Spice. 

The Cape Town-based company is a subsidiary of Libstar group, an entity that produces and distributes products and brands for the consumer-packaging industry. It was able to generate about R1.24-billion in export revenue from its products, up from R1.22-billion in 2019. Cape Herb & Spice contributed 56% to the group’s overall expert revenue. 

The company procures, blends, treats, packages and sells a wide range of herbs and spices as private-label and branded products to foreign and local retailers. It also supplies premium private-label teas to the South African and international markets. 

Onele Tshitiza, an economist at the National Agricultural Marketing Council, said spices are viewed as a niche market in South Africa and about 90% are imported. 

Many South Africans coped with the hard lockdown by making banana bread, vetkoek and other dishes; some even tried to push their culinary skills a little further when the government prohibited businesses from selling home-cooked meals. 

Jibson told the Mail & Guardian that Cape Herb & Spice noticed an increase in consumer interest for global cuisine flavours and the “urge to create restaurant-quality dishes at home”. This was good for business, and had created new opportunities for “innovation”, he added. 

The business had grown organically over a number of years because of innovation in the category, he said, but “2020 saw a spike due to Covid-19-related pantry stocking”. 

The company sources its spices globally, leveraging off the centuries-old spice trade

According to The Spice Trader, a Canadian-based company, from as long ago as 3 500BC, the ancient Egyptians were using spices for flavouring, in cosmetics and for embalming. 

From there, the use of spices spread through the Middle East, the eastern Mediterranean and Europe. For almost 5 000 years, Arab middlemen controlled the spice trade, until European explorers discovered a sea route to India and other spice-producing countries in the East.

“Spices were among the most valuable items of trade in ancient and medieval times,” according to The Spice Trader. 

Chef Lesego Semenya, of LesDaChef Culinary Solutions, told the M&G that the South African spice story is more complex than the European one. 

European countries conquered other regions that had these goods; in South Africa, Semenya explained, the original spices were brought to the Western Cape by the Indonesians, who were captured by the Dutch to work in the region because the Dutch did not want to use African slaves. 

They arrived with spices such as coriander, which is essential for biltong and boerewors. Semenya said they also brought other flavours, such as spices for curries. In KwaZulu-Natal, indentured Indians brought spices such as turmeric and cumin. 

Semenya said that South Africa does not have spices endemic to the region, such as in east Asia. He said we have our own peppers such as chilli, which grow naturally in Africa. 

In the past, chili would be the only spice added to food. African cuisine consisted mostly of food made with herbs, ground vegetables and ground greens, such as spinach, Semenya said. 

Jibson said that more people started cooking at home in most countries during the lockdown, but that the actual product demand was diverse. There were general trends such as increased worldwide orders for chilli seasonings and rubs, but there were also striking differences.

He said that for example, demand for curry seasonings spiked in Canada, whereas in Germany, barbeque spice was in demand. Thai 7 spice took off in New Zealand, and smoked paprika was in high demand in Singapore.

“Consumers were clearly more experimental in their cooking as we saw little-known spices such as sumac suddenly becoming popular both as an ingredient in blends and as a stand-alone spice,” he said.